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Getting caught with less than an ounce of marijuana on Tybee could soon cost you less than getting caught with a dog or glass bottle on the beach.
At a meeting earlier this month, Tybee Island city council saw a proposed marijuana decriminalization ordinance, which, as currently written, would reduce the penalty for possessing less than an ounce of weed on the island.
Locally, decriminalization measures have picked up steam in recent years: Savannah passed a similar measure in 2018, and Chatham County followed suit last year.
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Each of the ordinances’ stated goals are the same — to free up police officers from having to deal with the processing associated with making a misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest. Savannah and Chatham County’s answer to this has been: give people who possess less than an ounce of marijuana a $150 ticket instead. Tybee’s fine and weight limit is the same.
But Tybee’s ordinance, which is subject to change before a final version receives a vote, currently includes a couple of key differences.
In both Chatham and Savannah, officers have discretion when it comes to giving a ticket or making a misdemeanor arrest. Tybee’s ordinance currently doesn’t include this, though Councilwoman Nancy DeVetter, who introduced the ordinance to the council, said it’s one of the “moving parts” being considered.
“We want to maintain officer discretion, but we also want to save officers’ time so that they don’t have to spend time on marijuana,” DeVetter said. “That was the whole impetus for the ordinance.”
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In fact, Tybee’s ordinance outright restricts it.
“No person adjudicated in connection with an offense under this ordinance shall be arrested or subject to any form of imprisonment or confinement,” Tybee’s proposed ordinance — as it currently stands — reads.
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Savannah took the opposite approach, allowing an officer to choose whether they give a citation or charge a suspect with a misdemeanor possession charge.
According to the slideshow shown to Savannah police officers during a June 2018 training session on the ordinance, a citation may be issued if the officer is satisfied with the defendant’s proof of identity, no other criminal charges come from the same incident, the officer reasonably believes the defendant will show up to Recorder’s Court, and the defendant has no other warrants.
But, officer discretion means that every police interaction involving less than an ounce of weed is different, and more importantly, subjective. In the ordinance’s first 50 days, near-identical scenarios on paper ended up with much different results in reality.
A 19-year-old male was arrested for not having lights on his bicycle and a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge, but a 17-year-old male was given a citation for the exact same offenses. One has a misdemeanor charge on his record, the other does not.
A 23-year-old man was arrested for driving under the influence with an additional misdemeanor marijuana possession charge, but a 22-year-old man got a marijuana citation with his DUI charge.
A 2020 WTOC investigation found that in the first year and a half of the ordinance, the number of citations far outpaced the number of arrests. Savannah police gave citations to 675 people in that time frame, and only arrested 87.
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But it’s another facet of Tybee’s proposed ordinance that would be arguably the biggest step beyond the other local measures: reclassifying past marijuana convictions under the ordinance and sealing the records of those who were arrested.
“Within six months of the effective date of this ordinance, the Clerk of the Tybee Island
Municipal Court shall ensure that all prior misdemeanor marijuana convictions are resentenced as city ordinance violations; that such charges are restricted from the defendant’s GCIC, and that the court record is sealed if all charges related to the underlying arrest were dismissed, nolle prossed, or reduced to a city ordinance violation,” the proposed ordinance reads.
Expungement, referred to as record restriction in Georgia, allows people to restrict some parts of their official criminal history from public view — for instance, job applications and background checks.
Under S.B. 288, a bill from the 2020 session signed into law last August, only law enforcement will be able to access these restricted portions of a person’s criminal record. Not every charge qualifies, but marijuana possession does.
DeVetter said this is an important part of the proposed ordinance, but the question is: how far back will the city go?
“Part of what we’re still looking at is how many people this would impact. How far will we go back? Are we going to go back 50 years? How many records do we have that go back that far? We don’t know that yet,” DeVetter said. “That’s something that we’re still working on.”
DeVetter said the city recently pulled marijuana arrest data, and they found that in the last four years, Tybee Police had enforced around 250 marijuana-related offenses. Getting recent records isn’t that tough, but the further back they go, the more difficult and time-consuming the process becomes.
As it stands, the ordinance still has some hurdles to jump before it becomes law. The first reading has passed, and the ordinance could pass on the second reading when it comes up again at the Aug. 12 meeting, but council has to nail down those moving parts before that can happen.
And DeVetter said the specifics of the ordinance are still very much subject to change before it comes to council for a final vote.
“It’s still a moving process,” DeVetter said.
Will Peebles is the enterprise reporter for Savannah Morning News. He can be reached at email@example.com and @willpeeblessmn on Twitter.